Given the injuries the Redskins have endured on defense this season, no one prior to the 2004 campaign could have predicted the unit's success. Anyone who thought Washington would have the NFC's best defense through 15 games without the likes of LaVar Arrington, Matt Bowen, Phillip Daniels and Mike Barrow should run out and buy a lottery ticket.
Heading into this Sunday's season finale against the Minnesota Vikings, the Redskins' defense has set a goal of being the NFL's top-ranked defense.
Through 15 games, Washington had allowed 3,961 total yards, or 264 yards per game. That's the lowest average in the NFC and it's the second-lowest in the NFL behind only the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Pittsburgh has allowed 3,867 yards through 15 games, or 257.8 yards per game.
Heading into the final week of the regular season, both defenses will face challenges.
- The Redskins face off against the NFL's third-best offense in Minnesota. The Vikings are still fighting for a playoff berth and are expected to have their full complement of offensive weapons available, from Daunte Culpepper to Randy Moss.
- The Steelers play the Buffalo Bills and an offense that has averaged 38 points per game over the last six weeks.
The Redskins' defense has excelled in part because of reserve players who have performed well after seeing action because of injuries to starters. At this point in the season, fans have come to expect big games from players such as linebackers Antonio Pierce, Lemar Marshall and Chris Clemons, safety Ryan Clark and defensive ends Ron Warner and Demetric Evans.
Those players have proven that they belong.
"We have played a large number of people and we have not let the injury bug get us down," assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams said. "We have been able to line up every week, put a pretty good charge out there and do a good job of keeping people out of the end zone."
Pierce broke into the NFL with the Redskins in 2001 and started only 10 games in his first three seasons. This year, he made a case for a Pro Bowl nod. In the Redskins' 26-16 win at San Francisco, Pierce scored the defense's first touchdown of the season when he intercepted Ken Dorsey and returned 78 yards for a score.
Basically, everybody has stayed on top of their game, and guys have proven that each week," Pierce said. "Guys like Lemar Marshall and Ron Warner are improving each week and helping our defense get better. They're doing what the coaches ask them to do."
Warner, Evans and rookie Ryan Boschetti have played in place of Phillip Daniels, who missed most of last season with various injuries and is now on injured reserve after dislocating his wrist in Week 13. Warner, Evans and Boschetti have combined for 41 tackles and 4.5 sacks. Warner also had a key interception against the 49ers.
In addition to the emergence of several backups, the defense has benefited from the strong play of several first-year Redskins that joined the team in the offseason as free agents. Linebacker Marcus Washington, a Pro Bowl invitee, cornerback Shawn Springs and defensive tackles Cornelius Griffin and Joe Salave'a have each made significant contributions as starters.
Washington came to the Redskins from Indianapolis and eclipsed the 100-tackle mark for the second time in his career. He established a career high for tackles in a game with 14 in the Redskins' 20-14 loss to the New York Giants in Week 2. On the season, Washington has 110 tackles (86 solo) and 3.5 sacks.
With Arrington sidelined for most of the season, Washington teamed with Pierce and Marshall to comprise a linebacker trio to be reckoned with.
"Marcus has played really well," Williams said. "Silently, he is playing about as well as any linebacker in the league."
Springs, a former Seattle Seahawk, was signed in part to replace Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey, who was traded to Denver for running back Clinton Portis. Springs, a former first-round pick by Seattle, quickly eased any fears about a drop-off at the cornerback position. He leads the team with five interceptions.
Griffin and Salave'a have performed splendidly on the interior of the defensive line. Griffin, a former New York Giant who signed as a free agent last March led the team after 15 games with five sacks. He also has 85 tackles and 13 tackles for a loss.
"Cornelius has come in and he's been very explosive," said defensive coordinator Greg Blache, who oversees the defensive line. "As a coach, he's been a dream come true for me."
Salave's spent the 2002 season out of football and only played nine games for San Diego last year. He has 27 tackles and two sacks through 15 games this season.
The Redskins' defense has reasons to be optimistic that this season's performance can either be duplicated or improved upon. For one, Williams has said he expects to return to Washington next season. If he does, it would be the first time in six years that the Redskins had the same defensive coordinator for consecutive seasons.
Continuity on the assistant coaching staff is "one of the strongest things that has been going on in Philadelphia," Williams said. "They're the division leader and they have staff continuity. And New England is the same way. I think Joe Gibbs put a high priority on going to and getting the best staff he could so that we could get some continuity here."